The village of Cooperstown, New York
I recently had the opportunity to visit the lovely hamlet of Cooperstown, NY, located in the finger lakes region of upstate New York. The town has been dubbed the “birthplace of baseball,” but its history goes way back further than that – to the days of author James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales. In fact, the town was founded by Cooper’s father in the 1700’s and bears his namesake.
To get to Cooperstown, whether from the east, west, north or south, you will end up driving on two lane roads for at least 30 miles from the closest major highway. Tucked along the banks of Lake Otsego, the town that features quaint little shops as well as numerous museums is a gem of a find, a truly a step back in time as you walk along the neighborhood streets and Main Street pubs and stores. History certainly abounds with artifacts and buildings from the past 300 years, as well as memorabilia and trinkets from the world of baseball.
The home of the Baseball Hall of Fame since 1939, I was privileged to be in Cooperstown for the class of 2015 inductions that included long time Houston Astros legend, Craig Biggio. I was the spring training complex director in Kissimmee back in March 1988 when Craig arrived for his first – and only – spring training as a minor league player. I saw him in the hallway of the locker room and he asked me to direct him to the minor league clubhouse, which I gladly did. He was drafted the previous June and spent the summer in Asheville, NC with the Astros class A affiliate there. During the spring of 1988, he hoped to start at a higher level, which he did, beginning the season in AAA at Tucson, AZ before getting the call to Houston later that year. And as they say, the rest is history! He never looked back and played for the Astros from 1988 until 2007, 20 years for the same team, which is quite a rarity in today’s game. Along the way, he amassed over 3,000 hits and hit the most doubles of any right handed hitter who ever played major league baseball, while also help delivering the Astros to their only World Series appearance in 2005.
On Saturday night, there was a parade through downtown Cooperstown with Hall of Fame players riding in open automobiles and waving to the crowd. Later that evening, I was honored to be a guest at a special reception that the Astros held in Biggio’s honor. Craig was there with all of the guests, shaking hands, having photographs taken and mingling with the attendees. The next morning, the majority of the same group was feted to a fabulous breakfast on the back lawn of the Fenimore Art Museum, overlooking Lake Otsego. The highlight of the breakfast was enjoying the company of so many people that had played a part in Biggio’s major league career from former coaches and managers to former general managers and assistants, as well as a former team owner.
Next, it was on to the Induction Ceremony with a crowd of about 30,000, most of them wearing the orange and blue colors of the Houston Astros. When Craig Biggio spoke, as the first inductee of the day, the place erupted with great applaud and cheering. His speech was fabulous, as he remembered everyone in his life that had helped guide him on his path that culminated with the day’s induction into the fraternity of baseball’s elite. His appearance was followed by the other inductees of the day, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez. I may be biased, and while the others did a good job with their acceptance speeches, I truly believed Craig Biggio’s presentation and words were the best of the day.
Upon the conclusion of the event, I had one last opportunity to enjoy the magical town that is Cooperstown. It was one more time to walk around and savor the atmosphere of being in a place that was established so long ago and that modern times have not changed too dramatically. I first visited Cooperstown in 1966 as a wide eyed 13 year old with my mother and then revisited in the early 1970’s followed by trips in 1992 for Milo Hamilton’s induction into the broadcasters’ wing and in 1999 for Nolan Ryan’s enshrinement. There might be a few more memorabilia shops than there were back 40 years ago, but there really aren’t any modern buildings and certainly no high risers in the town. And walking along the residential streets is like strolling into a Norman Rockwell painting, a reflective vision of small town Americana.
Driving away in my rental car, through the rural countryside filled with apple farms, cows and rolling green hills, I almost felt like I was leaving Brigadoon, that mystical place that really doesn’t exist or comes to life just once every hundred years. As I found my way to the NY Thruway to head to the airport, I realized I had truly just stepped back in time for the weekend and now was headed back to the future!